The Return Home

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

After being abroad 20 months, the last eight of which were spent in Asia, coming into any western country is going to be a shock to the system. Coming home to Canada is perhaps the most surreal experience I have ever had. It started on the flight. The maple leaf on the tail of the plane. Announcements in English. And French. I think I must have fallen asleep, but I remember looking out the window and seeing the Queen Charlotte Islands and fjords below, green and pristine, and feeling an overwhelming sense of pride in our beautiful land. And then as we descended into Vancouver, a city I've always thought overrated and sprawling, it practically glistened in the sun and suddenly I realized I just hadn't understood it. Like Vancouver, I would never look at Canada the same way again.

Soon, I was in line for customs, with my beaten, bruised, and well-used passport in hand. This is still the same passport that I was issued in Dublin after my passport full of European stamps (which are now a thing of the past) was stolen there, and I am thankful that I have endured the miles better than this little booklet. I was expecting to spend all of my layover in Vancouver in customs given how long I was away (and that even after such an absence, the maximum allowed duty-free into the country is still $750). I was backpacking, and so the truth is that I didn't have anything to worry about, even with my mostly new wardrobe, since they were bought quite cheaply in Asia and I still had very little in my possession. Instead of a thorough tear-apart after a long flight, however, I was greeted by a very friendly customs guy who shook my hand and welcomed me home and after a few routine questions about my travels, sent me on my way to Canadian soil. First stop? An ATM where my hand was filled with green $20s. I walked outside and breathed in deeply as if I could somehow resolve my absence by sucking it all in.

If, in the You Can't Do That on Television (a Canadian show, by the way!) tradition, this episode has a code word, the word is definitely "overwhelming". It's not something I've really felt before, not in this way at least, so I don't know what was normal. Certainly, I loved having some Canadian change in one hand and a chai latte in the other as I sat waiting for my flight back to Saskatoon. I remember the monitors were all showing what I felt to be very American content, CNN news talking about just how putrid the air in Beijing was and the uproar of athletes using masks to practice for the upcoming Olympics. A bunch of people talking about something of which they know nothing, I felt defensive of China for all this posturing and rubbish pouring out of the tv. Interesting. Soon enough, I was back on a smaller plane bound for Saskatoon.

If I can describe how the next two hours or so went, there was a strange emptiness in me. I kept reminding myself that in a few hours I would be back at the small Saskatoon airport, I would see my family standing there, I would be at the restaurant or at home. None of this provoked even the remotest reaction in the most bizarre way. I would poke and prod but found only numbness. The rockies gave way to the prairies and soon Saskatchewan spread below looking very plain with the massive farms in all directions. We descended to Saskatoon and I noticed that I was finally feeling something, and it was anxiety. Of all the reaction to have, this was most puzzling to me. Excited to see everyone, I could understand. Sad the trip is over, sure. But nervous and anxious? At least it was only in the tracest amounts.

I looked out the window as we came up on the edge of the city and I couldn't tell where we were coming from. Bear in mind that as a pilot, I have spent over 100 hours flying around the city from every angle. Had so much really changed? I saw the big grain elevator (a major landmark coming in from the west) which I remember being on the outskirts but there were patches of urbanization all around it. Maybe that wasn't the same elevator? Maybe we weren't quite in Saskatoon yet? But the aircraft turned and there was downtown, the Bessborough, the core looking quite as I left it almost two years ago, and soon the wheels marked my return with two solemn black streaks on runway 33. One for each year, I suppose.

When the plane finally docked at the terminal, I was still feeling only that anxious emptiness. I stood up and waited my turn like everyone else and walked off the plane. I walked toward the escalator down to the arrivals area, and saw a few people waiting for their plane to board, realizing that I couldn't make out their faces clearly without my glasses. It could even have been my family sitting there, and I wouldn't have known it until I got closer. And then, out of nowhere, I just about collapsed,. Literally. I had to stop, catch my breath, and wipe my eyes and try to calm down my now very shaky body. I couldn't walk out there like this - I was a mess. I breathed slowly and preoccupied myself with fishing my glasses from my backpack and shook my head trying to make light of what felt like a pretty ridiculous reaction. Down the escalator, out the doors, and suddenly I was being hugged by a girl that was definitely too tall to be Mariah.

And then I looked up and there was my whole family standing right in front of me, after all this time, and my grandparents, and my Aunt Joeanne, Uncle Russ, and my cousins Cortland, and Catie. And the word of the day: overwhleming. After a lot of greetings and hugs and mini-stories my backpack came off the conveyor belt and though pretty much everyone offered to carry either it or my daypack for me, I did the last leg of the trip, from the airport to the car, with both backpacks on my shoulders. Jeans from Indonesia, shoes from Shanghai, a laptop stolen and recovered in Australia's Gold Coast, aviators from the markets in Phnom Phen, and all back home in Saskatoon. Our first stop was Athena. We walked in the kitchen door and I saw nobody I recognized. While the others were doing greeting in the kitchen I walked through the door and somebody was waiting at the till. "How was everything today?" I asked him. "Really good, thanks" I counted his change and said goodbye as my family walked through the doors of the kitchen. Yes it is, I thought, and we all sat down at the table..

Return Home Photos

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